How Pell Grants Could Give America's Prisoners an Education and Save Their Lives

The Obama administration is planning to restore thousands of dollars in direct federal tuition assistance for many state and federal prisoners.

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Jul 28 2015, 3:10pm

An inmate in California works on an essay for a GED class. Photo via AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

President Barack Obama has been rolling out some desperately-needed criminal justice and prison reforms, but releasing a few dozen nonviolent drug offenders early is just the first step. Last year, drawing on data from 30 state prisons, the national Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that within three years of release, about two-thirds of former inmates get rearrested. It's one thing to recognize the limits of a lock-them-up mentality and the futility of the war on drugs, and quite another to take the steps needed to permanently reduce the number of people ensnared in our prison-industrial complex.

Former prisoners and experts agree that by far, the most effective tool to combat recidivism is education. And with numerous outlets reporting that the Obama administration is planning to restore Pell grants—thousands of dollars in direct federal tuition assistance—for many state and federal prisoners, possibly as soon as this week, we're clearly entering a new era when it comes to mass incarceration in America.

When I first entered federal prison in 1993, Pell grants were available for federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) inmates. I was incarcerated at FCI Manchester, a medium-to-high-security facility in Kentucky, and they offered college courses through Eastern Kentucky University. The college professors used to come into the prison compound and teach classes at night during the fall, winter, and summer semesters. I was only 22 and had a 25-year sentence for an LSD distribution conviction in front of me; I needed something to grab and hold onto so I didn't fall by the wayside, and I immersed myself in the college program, taking a full course load of 12 credits. Going to the classes, doing the homework, and earning college credits toward a degree kept me out of trouble, gave me a sense of self-worth, and occupied me as I got acclimated to prison life.

But Pell grants were blocked for prisoners about a year later. It was the tough-on-crime era and politicians didn't want prisoners using federal money to get a college education. Luckily, my parents were able to afford to pay for correspondence courses, and I continued my studies through Penn State, the University of Iowa, and California State University, earning multiple degrees along the way. This was essential to my success today, as I'm out of prison now and thriving as a writer.

Michael Santos is another long-term prisoner who enjoyed success with college courses behind bars.

"In 1988, I was locked up inside the high walls of the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta," Santos says. "I was 23, beginning a term that would keep me confined for 26 years. Fortunately, Pell grants were available. With a Pell grant, I could work toward completing an undergraduate degree. Education would change my life. I walked into prison without any vision of how I would emerge. In 1992, Mercer University awarded my bachelor's degree. Then I embarked upon a graduate program. Hofstra University awarded my master 's degree in 1995. As a consequence of those degrees, numerous opportunities opened that would contribute to my success upon release."

Santos is now a published author, an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University, a business owner, and a regular speaking guest at corporations like Microsoft, where he outlines the strategies he used to succeed and prepare for his future while incarcerated.

"My successful adjustment through prison, and my successful return to society, would not have materialized if I had not had access to the Pell grant," Santos says. "Many citizens failed to understand the value of offering a Pell grant to people in prison. Yet prisoners who educate themselves leave prison to become contributing citizens, paying taxes from their legitimate earnings. Pell grants are a great investment. It's a shame that Congress denies them to people in prison."

Now more prisoners should have the opportunity to get an education like Santos and I did. I know my own reentry has been much easier because of the work I put in preparing myself for release. In prison, it's a survival process, but if you don't think about the future and only think about today—as the majority of prisoners do—your future will consist of a return to the belly of the beast. Getting an education is about the importance of working toward a goal and accomplishing it, something, as opposed to crime, which is all about instant gratification.

President Obama's planned restoration of Pell grants reinforce this. After all, why let prisoners out if you're not giving them the tools to succeed?

Professor Stephen C. Richards at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh completed a bachelor's degree while in federal prison. Upon getting out, he earned a PhD in 1992. Richards tells me, "As an ex-convict, now a professor, I have spent the past 20 years helping prisoners to get college degrees. There are numerous academic studies to prove that college prison programs dramatically reduce recidivism. Prisoners with some college course work completed are less likely to ever return to prison. College prison programs are the one sure way to help prisoners become law abiding citizens. All prisons should have federally supported college programs. The idea is that prisoners begin their struggle to change themselves by taking college courses, and then finish their education and complete degrees when they get out of prison. Some people say poverty and bad schools are a pipeline to prison. I say good prisons could be a pipeline to college. The federal government could help tens of thousands of state and federal prisons by simply paying for new college prison programs."

And educating those stuck behind bars is cost effective, too.

As the nonpartisan Rand Corporation estimated in 2013, "The direct costs of providing education are estimated to be from $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate, with re-incarceration costs being $8,700 to $9,700 less for each inmate who received correctional education as compared to those who did not." Inmates who participated in prison-sponsored education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than those who didn't. When you're talking about 700,000 people being released each year, this stuff matters.

A 2005 analysis by the Institute for Higher Education Policy cited research showing that prisoners who took college courses while incarcerated had recidivism rates 46 percent lower than those who didn't get at least some education while behind bars. The numbers don't lie, so it's a tragedy that we haven't invested more in rehabilitation as opposed to old-school punishment for those willing to make a change in their lives.

For many in the federal Bureau of Prisons, it's been a struggle to get an education since Pell grants dried up in the 90s.

"I am currently serving a 36-month violation for selling drugs," Elijah Fisher, a 34-year-old doing time at FCI Terre Haute in Indiana and poised for release next year, tells me. "During the first seven years (2004-2011), I tried to get an associate's degree in accounting, but fell short because the funds that my family were sending went dry due to the recession. I believe that if I would of had a Pell grant to assist me, I wouldn't be in prison again today! I think education is the way to financial freedom, which a lot of inmates including myself have been ignorant to, because of our parents' lack of education, which causes generational curses. That has landed me and my five brothers in prison numerous times.

"Pell grants can change the way felons are viewed upon release, as well as how we are view ourselves," Fisher continues. "This new mindset will reduce the recidivism rates and boost the American economy. A lot of inmates come to prison before the age of 25. Studies have proven that the human brain is still developing at that age... If being in federal prison is supposed to help rehabilitate felons, why not institute beneficial programs that will ensure productive development of the young adult American citizens?"

In the hierarchy of prisons, the federal BOP is supposed to be the top of the line, but due to the war on drugs, the system is bloated, corrupt, overcrowded and under-financed. Many prisoners think they are lucky to go to the feds, but then they find out the truth—no programs, no college classes, no rehabilitation.

"When I was in county and found out that I was going to the feds, everyone was telling me that I would have it made—good food, TVs in our cells, weights, and college courses," Derek Davenport, another Terre Haute inmate serving seven and a half years for pot distribution, tells me. "How disappointed I was: From talking to old-timers, federal prison is a shell of its former self, as budget cuts have taken away funding for college courses, recreation and the food is horrendous. In regards to education, the scheme most people on the outside don't know about is Adult Continuing Education courses (ACE). These are classes taught by inmates with no supervision. In fact, one inmate who I know that is teaching an ACE class doesn't even have a high school diploma or GED. How do people in society really expect inmates to have a successful chance at reentry if we are being taught ACE classes by people who have no formal training, teaching experience or even high school diplomas?

"The fact is taxpayers are being made to believe that their money is going to help us, it's all bullshit," Davenport goes on. "We need Pell grants big time."

With the sweeping changes that President Obama and members of Congress are poised to implement, education opportunities are back at the forefront. America is the land of second chances, and if someone wants to change their life in prison, they should be able to have the opportunity to do so through college courses, vocational training, or other educational pursuits. Dr. Richards, Michael Santos, and I were afforded that opportunity and we're doing just fine. But what about all the rest of the two million people incarcerated in prisons nationwide today? What opportunity have they been afforded?

"Society is suffering and will continue to suffer as long as there is no prison reform, meaning suitable employment, behavioral healthcare services, suitable housing, change of mindset, and other supportive services needed for those returning back to society," Wahida Clark, another former prisoner who has found success as a New York Times bestseller, tells me. Clark runs a nonprofit, Prodigal Sons and Daughters, in Newark, New Jersey, that specializes in providing services like she mentioned to ex-offenders.

Clark says her organization is funded by grants from the government—grants that should soon be available for prisoners nationwide.

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